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Old 26th Jan 2007, 1:20   #1
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Default M P Sheil: The Purple Cloud

The Purple Cloud by M P Sheil.(the second King of Redonda):

This is one of those books that any and every history of Science Fiction seems to mention but is rarely found on the shelves - despite still being in print. It is quite simply the mother father of all modern post-apocalyptic books (The Book Revelation aside). The story is simple:

After an awkward framing device, in which we are told what we are about to read was dictated by a medium with the ability to communicate with the future we are propelled into the world of London physician Adam Jeffson (the book was published in 1901, Spiritualism was in it's heyday and taken seriously by many, so this device wouldn't have seemed as shakey to an Edwardian readership as it does now),

Adam Jeffson narrates the events that lead him to becoming the first man to reach the North Pole. He returns from his last solo dash to the Pole to find his fellow explorers dead in their tent.

Alone he tries to make across the pack ice for Spitzbergen and after months of hardship, and with one of those amazing coincidences that only great fiction can get away with, chances upon the expedition's drifting ship, only to find all the crew dead too, struck down where they stood in the middle of their normal duties. He sails south, meets another boat only to discover the crew of that ship too are dead, and then another, and another.... Slowly he makes his way south and the true horror of what has happened begins to become apparent to him.

I could have come to land a long time before I did: but I would not: I was so afraid. For I was used to the silence of the ice: and I was used to the silence of the sea: but, God knows it, I was afraid of the silence of the land.
He makes his way back to London stopping only once in a Norwegian fyord where he encounters the bodies of people from all over the world, instantly recognisable from their modes of dress and skin colour for though the prologue refers to these as future events, it is very apparent that the world of this future is the High Victorian age in which it was written; the only real Science Fictional element - apart from the Purple Cloud itself - is the 'Liquid Air' that powers sea going ships, and this is purely a device to enable our narrator to sail back to England without the necessity of having to be both on the bridge, steering the ship, and down in the engine room, stoking the boilers, at the same time. Curiously, when it comes to the series of locomotives he uses to get from Dover to London they are all steam powered.
Once in England he discovers from old newspapers that the world has died from the poisonous effects of a cloud of gas vented from volcanoes in the pacific. The Purple Cloud of the title. The cloud has circled the globe, moving at a constant 100 miles a day, killing all it reaches. He searches Britain looking for any other survivors, exploring caves and mine shafts but only finds endless tableaux of death. Mine owners and their families walled up in their own shafts, killed as the workers tried to force their way into safety, couples from across class barriers embraced in one final kiss, a poet lying across his last stanza...

Slowly and certainly Jeffson goes mad. Driven by impulse and whimsy he dresses like a eastern potentate. He spends a week laying explosive charges and incendiary devices looted from the Woolwich Arsenal, and then, from Highgate Hill, watches late into the night as London is destroyed by his own hand. He heads to France, lives for a while in an old monastery, then travels to the Mediterranean where he spends 17 years building a palace of gold, silver, and jet before setting sail again. He travels the globe, visiting all the great cities of the world, then destroying them by fire and explosives. He spends some time in Constantinople before destroying it, but, as he does so, he unwittingly rescues, then meets, a woman who was born in a sealed cellar and has spent all her life underground. At first he is horrified and his first instict is to kill her but he relents and takes her back to his island where he alternatly shuns and her and teaches her. An earthquake destroys the island and they set off once again, this time travelling West through the remains of Europe. He slowly falls for the girl but is torn between his love for her and his loathing of Mankind.
He can't bring himself to kill her or himself (though he tries). Eventually he leaves her in France and returns to England. They talk every day by the telephone till, prompted by a ruse on her part, he returns to rescue her, and they consummate their relationship. He finally acknowledges the power of good / God.

The first half of this book is powerfully written and chock full of images that resonate. The journey down the North Sea with the dead crew on-board. the sea glassy still in a dead, languid eerie calm obviously drawing on imagery from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, just as the episodes on the ice drew on the final episodes of Frankenstein. For all the vast numbers of bodies in this book there are very few grotesque descriptions of death and destruction, I would guess that in Victorian England most readers would have encountered a dead body at some point in their lives, only these days when the dead are whisked away by the funeral industry and sanitised by hospitals, do authors feel the need to indulge in Wrightonian excesses of bloated corpses and horrific anatomical detail.

The second half of the book,picking up Adam's life after a thirteen year break in the narrative while he builds the palace, is less satisfying. The parallels with the Genesis creation myth are explicit, and dispel any tension, the narrator is called Adam, his fiancé at the start of the book (who murders a man to enable him to go on the expedition) is obviously Lilith, the woman he encounters in Constantinople emerges from the earth, like Eve, when she rebels at being called by the dead woman's name she chooses the name 'Leda' . Leda in Roman mythology gave birth to twins Castor and Pollux (Cain and Able), the destruction of the island stands in for the Expulsion &c. &c. All through the book the main character is from time to time prompted by two contrary voices which he labels "the Black Power" and the "White" (A field day for Po-Mo de-constructionists here, given the mixed race parentage of the author). Whether these voices are 'real' or just facets of the narrator's imagination is unclear, though Adam clearly believes them to be external forces fighting over him. It also stretches the credibility that they are still able to find working steam trains twenty years after the cataclysm, and only encounter one fallen tree blocking the line.

What made the first part of the book so compelling for me was the very real decent into madness. In most stories of a man alone surviving against the odds (Robinson Crusoe being the archetype) the emphasis is on the protagonist struggling to retain his sanity and rebuild. Here the narrator is aware of his crumbling sanity and does very little to salvage himself. He gives into it. Hurls himself with frenzied glee into his orgies of destruction and madness. It is very real.

The book full of the most florid, and hugely long, run-on sentences that just sweep you away, (In this passage the 'author' is in the centre of London reading the back copies of The Times trying to piece together what has happened.)

Sometimes for two, three, four minutes, the profound interest of what I read would fix my mind, and then I would peruse an entire column, or two, without consciousness of the meaning of
one single word, my brain all drawn away to the innumerable host of the wan dead that camped about me, pierced with horror lest they should start, and stand, and accuse me: for the grave and the worm was the world; and in the air a sickening stirring of cerements and shrouds; and the taste of the pale and insubstantial grey of ghosts seemed to infect my throat, and faint odours of the loathsome tomb my nostrils, and the toll of deep-toned passing-bells my ears; finally the lamp smouldered very low, and my charnel fancy teemed with the screwing-down of coffins, lych-gates and sextons, and the grating of ropes that lower down the dead, and the first sound of the earth upon the lid of that strait and gloomy home of the mortal; that lethal look of cold dead fingers I seemed to see before me, the insipidness of dead tongues, the pout of the drowned, and the vapid froths that ridge their lips, till my flesh was moist as with the stale washing-waters of morgues and mortuaries, and with such sweats as corpses sweat, and the mawkish tear that lies on dead men's cheeks; for what is one poor insignificant man in his flesh against a whole world of the disembodied, he alone with them, and nowhere, nowhere another of his kind, to whom to appeal against them? I read, and I searched: but God, God knows ... If a leaf of the paper, which I slowly, warily, stealingly turned, made but one faintest rustle, how did that reveille boom in echoes through the vacant and haunted chambers of my poor aching heart, my God! and there was a cough in my throat which for a cruelly long time I would not cough, till it burst in horrid clamour from my lips, sending crinkles of cold through my inmost blood.
Part Poe-esque misanthropic Gothic fantasy, part liberal diatribe, part religious tract, it's a hell of a book.

Quoted passages are lifted from the Project Gutenberg copyright free to air, vanilla flavoured text here:
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